Babe in Boyland by Jody Gehrman
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Contemporary, 292 pages
Published February 17th 2011 by Dial
When high school junior Natalie-or Dr. Aphrodite, as she calls herself when writing the relationship column for her school paper-is accused of knowing nothing about guys and giving girls bad relationship advice, she decides to investigate what guys really think and want. But the guys in her class won't give her straight or serious answers. The only solution? Disguising herself as a guy and spending a week at Underwood Academy, the private all-boy boarding school in town. There she learns a lot about guys and girls in ways she never expected-especially when she falls for her dreamy roommate, Emilio. How can she show him she likes him without blowing her cover?
"But I like you. And so do the bitches at MVH, apparently."
I want to slap him for that, but stop myself. I'm finally getting somewhere with the upper crust; this is no time to ruin everything by giving in to feminist impulses. Instead, I move my head back and forth like a cocky prizefighter. "What can I say? I got a way with the bitches."
I know I say this every time I review a contemporary novel, but I rarely actively want to read contemporary. I just can't get over this roadblock in my head that says contemporary is either Gossip Girl fluff or slit-your-wrists depressing. This, despite all of the incredible contemporary I've read. Whatever, welcome to my brain. The point is, I rarely wishlist contemporary books, but Babe in Boyland, for whatever reason*, was one I wishlisted. So when Jody emailed me, asking if I'd like to review Audrey's Guide to Witchcraft, and also offered up Boyland, I jumped at it. And once again, I was reminded of why I need to take down that roadblock, brick by brick, because I'm missing out on really good contemporary books.
This was funny. Really funny. Like, laugh out loud, snorting and chortling and reading parts over again, funny. Natalie just sparkles on the page, she is so thoroughly likable and engaging. Most readers will be familiar with the story because, lets face it, we've seen it before. This is a pretty common trope, actually**. But there's a reason it cycles back periodically - there's something compelling in it, and something with built in shenanigans, which always makes for a good time - but I think Gehrman puts her own stamp on things quite nicely, and Natalie is so engaging that I don't think I would even care if it was an exact play-by-play of something else. Though the men at school may hate Natalie's alter-ego, Dr. Aphrodite, and may think Natalie is clueless, it's hard not to like Natalie herself as a narrator. She is clueless in the beginning, but adorably so, and she doesn't stay clueless for long.
The friendships are fantastic as well - the interactions and the confronting of stereotypes/cliques, etc., are nicely handled. It's sadly rare to see positive female friendships in books these days - they tend to go either Mean Girl or Cardboard; if they're not flat and boring and easily substituted, they're competitive, combative, snide, and fake. Less friends, more frenemies. It's sad because while, yes, occasionally one girl may have that relationship with another girl - who may or may not be her friend - that's not the standard. (Surprise! Girls can be friends! Anne and Diana aren't faking it!) Natalie has good, tried and true, close friends who she cares about and who care about her, and help her in her ever-increasing shenanigans. (This isn't to say they don't have their ups and downs, because that would also be cardboard; but they don't serve as a shallow plot device, and I appreciate that.) The boys in Boyland start out as stock characters and evolve from there, much as they should in this type of story - they are fleshed out as Natalie realizes how little she knows, and opens her mind to get to know them, allowing the reader to do the same. Basically, character dynamics were a win in Boyland.
And - that's it.
I don't really have negatives, honestly. Some will feel like it's been done, and it has, and if that bothers you as a reader, you should maybe skip this. But as they say, there's nothing new under the sun, and I think most people either won't have come across this trope often enough to be bothered by it, or will like it too much to care. It reads like it could easily be a movie (partly because its type has been, partly because Gehrman is also a playwright and she put those skills to work). Babe in Boyland is now another in a longer-by-the-minute list of contemporary books that have done their best to convince me to start reading more contemporary. This super quick read (I devoured it in one sitting) was engaging throughout, and despite any unoriginality in the plot, I don't have any reservations in recommending it.
Also: Emilio Cruz. Win.
*Gender-bending. Gender-bending was the reason. And the cover, because seriously? Gold star, I love it.
** In fact, one such similar work, the 80's movie Just One of the Guys, even centers around the main character doing her cross-dress thang in an effort to win a journalism contest. Which is Natalie's goal. So there's that...
Audrey's Guide to Witchcraft by Jody Gehrman
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Supernatural, 293 pages
Published June 30th 2012 by Magic Genie Books
Coming on the heels of Babe in Boyland, I have to say, I was sadly disappointed. There were a number of reasons, but I think the biggest reason was voice. Natalie from Boyland had such a strong, distinctive, engaging voice - her personality was completely there. Audrey... Audrey is often closer to a stock character. There were moments when her humor and personality would come through more strongly, and I would feel what the book could be, but most of the time, I felt like you could easily swap her with another character from any quickly churned-out paranormal fantasy and not notice too much of a difference. She was never completely cardboard (not a lost cause by any means), but compared to the vibrant Natalie, and knowing what Gehrman is capable of, I was always waiting for that injection of personality, and it made me a little sad (and made the book harder to get into) when it didn't come.
Basically, the book felt a little unfinished to me. It felt...hmm, it felt like I was reading an earlier version, before things were tightened up and streamlined. It's never a good thing when I feel myself wanting to redline things, but I did have that urge. The dialogue needed tightening, the magic needed more of a foundation, and the whole book needed another "pass" - another round of tweaking and perfecting. The magic especially just felt too easy, too Bewitched-wink-and-nod-and-POOF! = magic, y'all. That never works for me, especially when it's combined with the suddenly-I'm-magic trope. I require balance in all things - if there are great advantages, there need to be great drawbacks. And if there are not, if this is just the way your magic works, I need to know more of the Why. I need to believe it, because if I don't buy that, how can I buy anything that happens as a result?
I felt the plot needed some tightening, too. Sometimes it seemed to move too quickly and drop the connections that were needed to build tension, and sometimes it seemed to be stuck in limbo, leaving me wanting to just push through already. It's tricky to review, actually, because there were plenty of times when it flowed along and did what it was supposed to do, pulling me along with it. But there were enough patches that left me frustrated and wanting to fix, that they marred my overall impression.
And though I don't want to go into spoiler territory, I do want to address the pitfalls of having a suddenly very powerful main character and a sort of nebulous Big Bad. Audrey accepts everything way too easily, especially for as smart of a character as she is. If someone shows up at your house (with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck) and says your mom has been kidnapped because she's magic(k), and then all manner of weird things begin happening and hey, wouldn't you know it, you're magic(k), too, and a maybe rare, powerful, uber-magick, then please, start to question everything. Because if you (the character) do not, your reader will, and they will be put off by the fact that you didn't. You don't just accept things like that, even in the face of flying shit and proofproofproof, because that's a HUGE paradigm shift, and you are required by law (or something) to question whether someone is playing a really elaborate prank on you, or you've lost your damn mind. You just have to, at least for form's sake, before giving in and saying, okay, guess I'm magic(k)! (And same with the Big Bad - I need to buy it, buy who he is and why he's so Eeeevilll! or he'll end up coming off cheesy. This particular Big Bad just walked that line. I didn't fully buy who he was or why he does some of the things he does, though I'm sure that will be explained more in future books. But he did give me the creeps, so that gets him villain points.)
But all this is not to say it's not a worthwhile read, and maybe I should have opened with that before unleashing all of my grievances. But I never seem able to do that because I have to get it out, so...there you go. I think if I'd read this when I was younger, many of the things that bothered me may not have. (And maybe if I hadn't read this just after reading Babe in Boyland, which I really enjoyed, things may not have bothered me as much as they did in comparison.) I do like Audrey, even if she's not quite as "real" as Natalie. There's good tension and romance, even if I did wish for more depth in both. It's very quick, and Gehrman's storytelling is engaging, and I think there are those who will connect with Audrey and love her, and ignore or forgive the story's flaws as a result. But I can't help but wish for something more memorable, knowing Gehrman is capable of it. Still, I'd recommend it for a quick Halloween read without much hesitation - but whether I'll read more of the series is up for debate.